It’s a good thing “The Confidence Man” is free — it requires at least three viewings. Not because it’s particularly obtuse or dense, but because there are three different, dovetailing strands of playlets in simultaneous motion aboard the good ship Lilac, a rusty old tub that sits at Pier 40 on the Hudson. Nominally inspired by Herman Melville’s novel of colorful steamboat passengers, Paul Cohen’s gratifyingly ambitious script manifests itself less as a single play than an impressively cohesive piece of installation art about swindling, literally buoyed by the verisimilitude of its maritime setting.
Led around the ship by one of six docents, audience members follow three or four of the 16 storylines that play at different places and times around the elderly vessel — climbing stairs, ducking into tiny cabins, and embarrassedly turning their backs as one guide makes a lengthy phone call to the student she’s extorting. Some of these pieces are as elaborate as a good thriller — the grad student bit is particularly inspired, as is the old-timey two-man con starring a salesman of holy relics and his accomplice, a crooked rabbi. Others are simply one-off monologues about dishonesty, frequently on the part of the teller.
The writing varies from bit to bit; many of the 31 performers seem to feel understandably less at ease spouting unconvincing “period” dialogue than running the more contempo lines.
Cohen’s ending, which puts a bow on the proceedings, is also a little problematic, mostly because of the show’s diffuse, labor-intensive concept and execution. As a whole, “The Confidence Man” works well enough to make a pat ending feel redundant. The vignettes, all blocked and assembled very well by a team of three directors (Stephen Brackett, Lauren Keating and Michael Silverstone), are thematically cohesive without it, though one supposes some kind of conclusion was essential to signal auds when it’s time to get off the boat.
But the writer comments intelligently on the novel itself, which is chiefly concerned with multiple perspectives on grifting, including that of the grifter himself. In the play, Cohen shuffles timelines, but he always maintains the spirit of the book, whether it’s in a couple of doctoral candidates (Roger Lirtsman and Emily Perkins) discussing Melville or an earnest financial executive (Melissa Miller) encouraging her clients to stop worrying and trust their Madoff-like benefactor (Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum).
Since there’s a cast of literally dozens, it’s impossible to do all the actors justice, but Grigolia-Rosenbaum and Miller are notably good, and all the actors roll with the continuous challenge of a dozen people standing wherever they please while the scenes take place.
With only beer sales (not recommended — ladderlike stairs plus the vessel’s mild swaying are plenty perilous sans booze) to keep the good ship Woodshed Collective afloat, it’s a wonder this tiny company is able to mount such a huge entertainment. And it’s heartening that they’ve pulled it off.